Maverick Medicine: Since Western Medics Discovered the Benefits of Acupuncture and Other Chinese Healing Methods, Lawmakers Have Had a Tough Time Fitting It All into the Traditional Model
Boulard, Garry, State Legislatures
Consider Rhett Bergeron, a Louisiana-trained physician who now practices in Georgia, as an uncomfortable symbol in the growing battle between traditional medicine and those who agitate for alternatives.
Young and energetic, Bergeron graduated from Louisiana State University's medical school in 1992 before starting a family practice in the southern part of the state.
In a region where certain cancers are among the highest in the nation (indeed, the stretch of factories and refineries lining the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is known as "cancer alley"), Bergeron soon became frustrated over the low success rates he witnessed with traditional ways of treating cancer.
"There were so many cases in which we just couldn't reverse someone's disease process," Bergeron later explained as he recounted his journey into the land of complementary and alternative medicines, known to its practitioners as CAM.
Increasingly, he began to study and eventually use treatments and therapies that included nutrients, herbal remedies, and aloe vera and cesium-packed supplements.
And in the process he became a hero to area patients who admired the physician's eclectic, creative approach, otherwise known as "integrative medicine."
Integrative medicine, for Bergeron, works particularly well because, as a licensed physician, he is allowed to freely mix the latest alternative products and practices with more traditional approaches to battle diseases like cancer.
But even physicians like Bergeron have been affected by the lack of comprehensive federal and state laws governing CAM. Alternative products can be dangerous, but there's no regulation of the industry This fall, during hearings before the U.S. Senate Committee on Aging, Bergeron's name was linked with T-Up, which both federal and state investigators say is a sham product that fails to live up to its billing as a cure for cancer and AIDS, among other diseases. Although no one has accused Bergeron of doing anything wrong, he was listed as a doctor who was using T-Up. Bergeron says he does not remember sending anyone T-Up, and believes the product is "dangerous." T-Up's distributor, Allen J. Hoffman, a Maryland doctor, has been indicted by state authorities on 20 counts of trying to sell and distribute an unapproved new drug and making claims for it that could not be verified.
During the Senate committee hearings, lawmakers heard from a variety of watchdog groups and law enforcement officials, all of whom emphasized that the danger to American consumers who use unregulated and unapproved alternative products and practices has never been greater, primarily because the interest in and use of alternatives has never been stronger.
"This apparently innocent freedom-of-choice movement, which appears to bring the free market to health care, is a major danger," said Dr. Robert Baratz, executive director of the National Council Against Health Fraud. "Neo-snake-oil sales people have begun to undermine the foundation of our excellent system of care. They have begun to succeed at substituting pseudo-science for science, anecdote for evidence and nonsense for substance."
But for the proponents of alternative medicines, such talk is a smoke screen, an excuse, they say, put forward by the traditional medical establishment to deny them their right to choose whatever kind of medical product or treatment they like.
Not surprisingly, the question of whether and how to regulate alternative practices and procedures is frequently an angry one, usually evolving into a debate about what the word freedom really means in the world's greatest democracy.
"The basic point is a simple one--people who are the consumers of alternative products and practices are trying to take responsibility for their own health and well-being," says Jim Turner, executive director of a group called Citizens for Health, which advocates not only CAM, but the state licensing of its practitioners. …